Friday, April 16, 2010

Turning point in a future history

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera

I've reviewed four short stories and a novel by Mike Resnick since beginning this blog. Prior to that, I read at least three of his Kirinyaga series of stories, and an unknown number of his other stories and books (because I kept no records). I don't know if I'd ever be able to read all of his work; how he ever wrote it all is a mystery! Many of his books, particularly in the past twenty years, take place in his Birthright Universe future history milieu. Starship: Flagship, the fifth of the Starship series, is a Birthright book that takes place almost 3,000 years into the future, according to a chronology in Appendix 3.

The Starship series concerns the fortunes of Wilson Cole, an aging military man who mutinied in the first book of the series. He has command of a former Navy starship, the Theodore Roosevelt, and in the current book he has come to be the leader of a force of about a thousand ships. With this ragtag bunch he takes on the Republic and its Navy of several million starships. Though one knows Cole will prevail, there is no anticipating how.

The tactics Cole uses must come from the later chapters of Lao Tzu's The Art of War, or perhaps a chapter or two he didn't get around to writing. His oft-stated aim is to win, if possible, without firing a shot. He shows admirable ability to get the enemies to fight among themselves, for example. But it is made clear that Cole does not consider the Navy men his enemies, but only their leaders, those who have made him an outlaw because of his integrity.

Well, I am a poor political commentator. The mechanisms make more sense to me than the hero's machinations. This wide-ranging space opera takes advantage of the idea of wormholes. Though they are not visible (and I don't know why not), there is an unmentioned detection technology so they can be found and even cataloged. They provide shortcuts all over the Galaxy, and are apparently numerous enough to provide a sort of celestial subway from star system to system.

In addition, there is an FTL technology that even fits in the lifeboats; the destruction of a certain super-weapon depends on the ability of a shuttle craft to swiftly reach light speed. Then, because of the ability to go a few light years within a few hours, even without a wormhole (they are used for longer jumps), humans and a number of alien races are variously trade partners and war adversaries.

Another notion I find amusingly interesting is the very rapid computer programming abilities of the technical crew. They frequently come up with powerful new applications in an hour or so; from my years (decades) as a professional programmer, one of the fastest on the planet if I do say so myself, I know that even modest applications take a few days or weeks to knock out with the most rapid prototyping methods known. I guess programming in the 3000's will also be FTL!

The book is also a morality play. One moral issue that permeates the book is one's attitude toward the foot soldiers (or navy men) who carry out the orders of one's real enemies. Another issue that takes just a short space but resonates deeply is how far an interrogator can go when a recalcitrant person holds the secret to saving or losing dozens of lives. In an epilogue the author states that this was motivated by recent events such as the waterboarding of "detainees". Is an "advanced interrogation method" torture if it leaves the victim physically unharmed? Yet how do you measure psychological harm?

This is the kind of book I like a lot. A ton of fun to read, with a scope as wide as one can imagine (well, only one Galaxy after all), and some food for thought in the bargain.

No comments: